They say truth is often stranger than fiction and nowhere is this more evident than in the premature passing of Kim Jong Nam, exiled half-brother of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. “Passing” is a euphemism; though the investigation is still unfolding, facts point towards a political assassination.
By now most have heard about or even seen the video of the elder Kim at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, overcome by a mystery poison delivered to his face by a coterie of female assassins, suspected to be North Korea agents.
It is utterly cloak and dagger, straight out of a James Bond movie, but at the heart is a tragic tale of alleged fratricide. While once heir apparent to his father, Kim Jong Il, who had succeeded his own father, Kim Il Sung, the legendary dictator and father of North Korea’s political dynasty, Kim Jong Nam had fallen out of favor and was cast out, not only from the succession, but from his country. His younger half-brother, the unpredictable Kim Jong Un, is suspected of ordering his death or at the very least, applauding those who carried out, possibly as a political favor.
While he was an advocate for reform in his repressive native North Korea, he was quietly so, and only an occasional critic of the crazy events going on back home—executions and torture punctuating the usual state of fear and hunger. Today Korea remains the most isolated place on earth, in the grip of a madman who is fueled by a powerful military bent on showing the world his superiority.
I follow these events more closely than most, as the daughter of a North Korean who gave up his homeland in favor of life in a democratic South Korea and then as an immigrant to the United States. I had hoped that relations would thaw in my dad’s lifetime, and that we could all embark upon a long overdue return to North Korea in search of our roots. I imagined tracking down my father’s brother and sister and my cousins, as well as everyone else in the extended Kwon and Ryu families.
When Molly was researching possible topics for a dissertation on comparative politics, we took the idea to my dad to visit North Korea to do research. It would be complicated, but many South Koreans with North Korean roots have crossed the border, either at the DMZ or through pathways in China, which borders North Korea to the north and enjoys diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
I thought my dad would welcome the idea, even enthusiastically volunteer to come with us. I imagined my usually stoic and unemotional dad falling into the arms of his long-lost sister in a tearful reunion overdue by seven decades. My dad just turned 87. He last saw his family as a teenager in the aftermath of World War II.
He was horrified by our plan. It was too dangerous, he said, the North Korean regime too unpredictable, and we could be captured, imprisoned and turned into political pawns in a game only they were willing to play. Initially, I thought it was his usual caution, even paranoia showing through. But then, consider this recent—there’s no other word for it—weird murder of a harmless and genial blood relative.
Consider the poor college kid a couple of years ago sentenced to years of breaking rocks for pulling off what normally would be a harmless prank—stealing a propaganda poster as a souvenir—but was deemed to be a crime against the state. Harmless prank is not a concept in the North Korean mindset.
The killing of Kim Jong Nam has caused a diplomatic crisis between Malaysia and Pyongyang. The motive for the killing remains unclear. It’s not as if the elder Kim had been inciting political revolt; no, he had been traveling and living a quiet life in exile with his family, laying no claim to political power or his rightful claim to a place in the dynasty. Why, then, such a seemingly pointless murder? Because they could get away with it seems just as good an explanation as any other. When it comes to North Korean rationale, don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed.
Not just high-profile assassination stories, but K-Pop, K-fashion, and even Korean food are putting Korea on the map and in the minds of westerners as never before. Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Chin Ho Kelly on Hawaii-Five-O, is a genuine Hollywood success story and I’m gratified to see more Asians finding their place in the mainstream.
A couple of years ago, while visiting Panmunjom with Katie and Molly, he was there as well, and I got a picture of them together, a genuine highlight of our trip.
At the time, I thought he might be looking north at the mountains and farmland, imagining his lost relatives, wondering when he would finally have the opportunity to meet them.
Now I realize he was most likely conducting research for his next project with his CBS-based production company, a feature film about North Korean specialist Mike Kim and his experiences helping North Koreans escape over the border with China, using a modern-day Underground Railroad to help thousands of people to safety.
Like so many Koreans around the world with North Korean connections, I had been so hopeful when Kim Jong Il died, when it appeared that a western-educated, young and presumably open-minded and reasonable ruler would come into power. Alas, Kim Jong Un has shown his true colors in recent years and I am sadly disappointed. I have given up the idea of a joyful reunion with my North Korean family in my father’s lifetime; perhaps I can hope that it can still happen in my own.